I spoke about the problems with existing Microsoft Office UIs with Justin Harris, a program manager on the Office team, at Microsoft Professional Developer Conference (PDC) 2005 in October. He told me that Microsoft's new Office 12 UI, which replaces the toolbars and menu systems that have graced all earlier Office versions, is the result of the company finally realizing that it didn't have enough faith in its users. PC users, he told me, were smart enough to handle different UIs for different Office applications. So instead of working somewhat mindlessly to ensure that the interfaces for Office Word, Excel, and Access were as similar as possible, as Microsoft had in the past, the company is now working to ensure that these and other Office applications have interfaces that make the most sense for what they're meant to accomplish.
I was greatly heartened by this news. And although a first glance at the new Office 12 UI is sure to cause some consternation because of the unfamiliarity of the enormous icons and ribbon-based bands of functions placed along the top 1/4 of each application window, when you actually sit down and use Office 12, you realize that Microsoft might just be on to something. Indeed, I'm arguing that the Office 12 UI is quite simply the most innovative feature to come out of Microsoft in years, perhaps ever. This is big stuff for a company that has generally taken others' ideas and sold them as its own.
Oh, that the company had done the same for its online services.
Prior to a few weeks ago, most of Microsoft's Web services were exposed through the MSN division. I'm an unabashed fan of MSN, which has done a lot of good, if largely unnoticed, work over the past several years. (See my "MSN: The Inside Story" showcase at the URL below for details.) But in a September reorganization, Microsoft pulled MSN into the Windows organization. I was immediately fearful that the Windows teams would essentially kill MSN by bogging down MSN in their coma-like product-release schedule.
It turns out my fears were a best-case scenario. Instead, Microsoft is literally killing MSN altogether, though that's not how the company is putting it. Virtually all the products and services that MSN was working on are being wrapped around Windows and renamed to remove the MSN identity. For example, Microsoft is renaming the MSN Messenger IM client to Windows Live Messenger. The next version of Hotmail, previously code-named Kahuna, will be marketed as Windows Live Mail. And so on.
The problem, of course, was that MSN was firmly in the consumer camp. And consumer-oriented online services scare the bejeezus out of Microsoft's bread-and-butter corporate customers. Google Search is great, but the thought of users having unfettered access to potentially incorrect information is scary, and I'm pretty sure that enterprises will one day look back on the online situation today with the same grim mindset with which they remember the days in which computers didn't have firewalls and pervasive software protections.
So the truth is that Microsoft's most lucrative but slow-moving product team saw that all the innovation at the company was happening outside of its organization and was doing so with tremendously short time to market. In short, MSN was making the Windows group look silly by comparison. MSN was so well run, in fact, that it had to go. Chalk it all up to office politics.
Aside from purely emotional reasons, here's why I have a problem with this move. Previously, MSN's products and services didn't need to be tied to Windows or Microsoft's other dominant products for any particular reasons. MSN Messenger runs only on Windows, yes, and it integrates nicely into the OS, but it was never added directly to the OS and installed by default from the CD-ROM you get from Microsoft. In other words, MSN's products and services were free to compete on their own and do well--or not--in the open marketplace. As a result, MSN moved quickly to improve things to remain competitive.
When Microsoft bundles products and services with Windows problems emerge. First, innovation and active development stops, and we don't see upgrades as often. Second, because these rarely updated components are often more integrated with the OS than they should be, they often cause system vulnerabilities. And third, they're often artificially designed so that the user can't uninstall them later. Add-on applications, by design, can be uninstalled at will. I can't wait to see which Windows Live products and services will be included with Windows Vista by default.
On the Office side, Microsoft is also introducing a set of Office-oriented online services called Office Live. These services are less well understood today and, unlike the Windows Live services, aren't available in public beta form yet. Here's what we know so far: Office Live is aimed at small businesses and will include both free and subscription-based offerings. The free version, Office Live Basics, will give small businesses a domain name, a Web site with 30MB of online storage, and five Web email accounts. It will be supported with advertising. The paid versions of Office Live won't include advertising. If you're interested in these services, Microsoft is offering customers a chance to sign up for the beta, which will start in early 2006 (see the URL below). Unlike Windows Live, these services, although not particularly innovative, do appear to nicely walk a line between add-ons and product bundling. I just wish the Windows group understood that need.
MSN: The Inside Story
Windows Live Ideas